Any Wilton student paying attention recently has seen and heard quite a lot about the devastation left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, and how many people in the northeast now face great need.
But for all of Cider Mill School’s fifth graders, a recent field trip to Wilton’s food pantry at Comstock Community Center has shown them that there are people in their own community who deal with another kind of hardship on a regular basis. The visit was tied to a school-wide donation drive to collect items that the food pantry provides to needy Wilton residents.
As more than 90 students and teachers crowded into the space around shelves holding peanut butter, coffee, canned vegetables and other assorted items, they were met by Lauren Hughes, senior services coordinator with Wilton Social Services, who thanked them for coming to learn about how they were helping others in their community.
“We brought you here for a purpose. We want you to see what you are doing. So you can see where all your donations that you all have been so generously giving to us for years and years and years, wind up.”
Hughes explained that by having the children see the food pantry first-hand, it would help germinate in them the idea that it’s important to help others in the community who are less fortunate. She also noted that it would also help increase awareness at a key time—the holiday season—when much is asked of people who have to help people who don’t have in their own community.
“I think it’s critical for kids—particularly kids in a privileged environment—to understand that not everybody is of privilege. Or that sometimes people have crises in their families by which they shift from once giving to now being on the receiving end, which hopefully won’t last long but does happen. I think that awareness of what we do is important for everybody—now these kids are going to go home with more than just a list to give to their moms and dads. Now they’ll be able to say, ‘I saw the place, I had a conversation, I know a little bit more about it.’”
Cider Mill has been holding regular food drives for Wilton’s food pantry for more than 20 years, when teacher Ilene Bosch started the program. The school usually runs drives four times a year, anytime Hughes calls Bosch to say the shelves are getting bare and need to be restocked.
This was the first time in many years, however, that students visited the pantry before the campaign started. Not only was the visit designed to teach them all about the pantry, but a handful of the fifth graders would get the opportunity to then teach what they learned to the younger third and fourth graders about what the food pantry does as “ambassadors.”
“It’s the first year we did the ambassadors. The kids were so enthusiastic about going to the other classes—they’re much more involved in it, and there’s much more impact. I’m hoping that the younger kids will listen to what their older peers are teaching them, and that the ‘We’ve been there, we saw it,’ lesson has an impact. They should have a much better feel for it and understand why we’re doing it,” Bosch said.
During their visit, the students peppered Hughes with questions about how the food pantry worked, what items were needed and who qualifies to receive the things offered by the facility. They found out which items get taken the most; whether or not the pantry stocks fresh, refrigerated goods like eggs, meats and produce; that the pantry is always in great need of paper goods (toilet paper, Kleenex, paper towels etc.) and personal care items (shampoos, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes); and how clients who shop the pantry don’t need to pay anything for the groceries they receive.
But what hit home very hard for the students was how many more people need to use the pantry than ever before.
“I’ve been working for the Department of Social Services for 18 years, and when I first started working here, we were helping maybe 5-7 families a year. We are now helping between 60 and 70 families on a weekly basis. It’s well over 100 people. Some of them are seniors, some of them are couples, and some of them are families with four or five kids,” Hughes told them.
At that, the kids’ eyes widened a little bit, and more than a few whispered ‘Whoa!’ as reality started to sink in.
The questions started to take on a tone that reflected how the kids were beginning to relate on a personal level.
“Do you ever need desserts—like cookies?” asked one.
Hughes helped reinforce that connection for them. “Absolutely—treats are great, snacks are great. Things that you like in your lunchboxes are great. We don’t get a lot of that, so absolutely.”
The other crucial concept Hughes and Bosch wanted the kids to understand is how local the need was and that the people the kids would be helping by donating to the pantry were their own neighbors from Wilton.
“It’s very important that people understand that everything we do stays in town. All of our services are for people in Wilton. We’re not collecting anything that leaves Wilton. It’s not just other communities—that’s a big thing when you say that there are children in our town whose families are using the food pantry, that has really brought it to their attention, that they know there are quite a number of people who use it and that it’s important to them,” Hughes said.
Which can be tricky, as Hughes kept in mind the possibility that any of the students in the group could come from a family receiving services.
“I don’t ever want anyone to feel uncomfortable, particularly a child, so I always try to be careful of how I characterize people who need services. That it is always a result of circumstance, and I make sure to communicate that. So that nobody should feel in any way uncomfortable about being in that position. It’s a privilege to be on the other side. We have clients who have been on the receiving end who now are in a place where they’re able to donate. It’s a situation that people find themselves in for whatever reason, and if we are able to help them at that time in their lives, then hopefully they’ll be able to help somebody else down the road—particularly with the memory of the help that they got,” Hughes said.
The lesson Bosch, Hughes and the other teachers wanted to give the students was about how connected everyone is to one another in the community. Hughes told them, “Everything that comes in here is offered free to clients, because it comes in free to us. We are extremely, extremely grateful, as are all the families for everything that you do for social services, particularly for the food pantry.”
Above all, Hughes hoped that the kids would walk away with a sense of wanting to help others and how to work together with one another to do so.
“Information and awareness is really, really important. If kids in the fifth grade hear about it and they talk to the third and fourth grades, now those kids will know. And social conscience is an important part of being in the world. It helps build a consciousness in the community that’s important.”
To learn how you can donate to the Wilton food pantry, and what items are needed, contact Wilton Social Services at 203-834-6238.